A TechRepublic member writes to ask:

Question: I have an HR question regarding performance reviews. After you have your formal review with your supervisor and sign the review, can the supervisor review you two more times with lower grades because management has told him that they don’t like the numbers?

I’ve been in the IT industry for about 16 years, and this is the first time this has ever happened to me. Being in management myself, I’ve never finalized a review, discussed it with the employee, and then changed the review because the numbers were too high. I would consider this an insult to my employee, especially after we’ve discussed the grades and goals for the employee to work on in the coming year. Is this a new trend in HR, or am I just working for an unorthodox company? Please advise.

Answer: I was so taken aback by your description of what is obviously a problematic situation that I called Barbara Ford, a vice president in CNET’s human resources division, to get a little insight on the question of whether a company can change an employee’s ratings after a formal review session with the employee’s manager. As I suspected, the answer is yes; the company can do this, but Ford and I are in absolute agreement that this sort of breakdown in the review process is, as you put it, insulting to the employee, and it creates a world of management headaches.

My question about your situation is why upper management felt the initial review numbers were too high. The two possible scenarios I see are:

  • The rating numbers broke a bell curve of some sort and were just out of sync with how other employees who perform at a comparable level have been rated, or
  • Someone in upper management simply doesn’t agree that you are performing at the level described in your original review.

In either case, upper management or HR seriously dropped the ball here. If upper managers or an HR review panel must sign off on reviews, it absolutely needs to happen prior to the review session with the employee. In all candor, that’s an engrained routine at almost all companies, and it’s hard to believe it didn’t happen in your situation. So I don’t think anybody could blame you for being irritated with the way your review was handled.

The one upside to the situation that Ford noted—and that I have to begrudgingly concede—is that it’s better for employees to know exactly what management thinks of their performance, even if that message comes through a sloppy process like the one you describe.

“This really is a difficult situation, but if the company feels strongly that the employee gets the right message, then that’s really what everyone needs to focus on,” Ford said. “The people in the situation need to focus on where the disconnects are, and work through them.”

Easier said than done.

Ford’s advice—and again, I agree with her on this one—is that you need to ask for a meeting with HR and any upper managers who were involved in the decision to alter the review numbers following the employee review session. Find out why the company decided to change the rating. The answer needs to be more substantial than “the numbers were just too high.” At the very least, I’d be certain to get a noticeably changed set of goals for the coming year, since obviously your desired growth path within the company is the subject of some disagreement in the management pool.

Again, I know this is easier said than done, but try to be open-minded to the possibility that this was simply a massive review process blooper, as opposed to any conspiracy against you. “The employee needs to know that nobody is out to get him,” Ford advised.

This doesn’t mean that you should just gloss over your well-justified feelings that you’ve been misused somehow. Be clear with your managers that you think the situation has been mishandled, and explain that these kinds of mixed signals could be a major roadblock to your professional development. Be professional, but be assertive. If nothing else, it’s obvious that your review process has been taken lightly by someone, and that’s inappropriate, to say the least.

You should spend most of your energies focusing on your relationship with the manager who gave you the initial review: your supervisor. I wouldn’t settle for an explanation that your supervisor was just following orders when changing your numbers. Your supervisor needs to buy into the company’s overall goals for your performance in the next year, and should be the main force modeling those plans, since he understands your strengths and weaknesses better than any senior manager could hope to. I’d go so far as to request quarterly review sessions with your supervisor to make sure whatever disconnect derailed this year’s process doesn’t surface again next year. Otherwise, you might be in for another unpleasant surprise.

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